Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More "Healthy Schools" Testimony: Nancy Piho

By Nancy Piho

My interest in testifying in support of this bill stems from several positions: my twenty-year involvement in the food marketing industry, my authorship of the new book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” which focuses on the importance of teaching young children to appreciate the taste and flavor of various foods, and, most important, my role as a citizen of the District of Columbia and the mother of two young boys, ages five and two.

While there are many aspects of this bill that are important, I focus my testimony on five specific points that I believe are key components, as they are all currently under-recognized issues that could play a significant role in encouraging our children to eat more healthful diets. I think we all agree that that is an admirable goal.

First, the bill requires that 30 minutes be allotted each day for children to eat their lunch. While this may sound insignificant to some, or even like a waste of time, I found in the two years that I researched my book that experts are in complete agreement on this issue. Sitting down, focusing on eating and the food being consumed, is a critical step in teaching children to place value on their diets and what they eat. We are all most likely guilty of too much “eating on the run,” often with negative consequences to our health. This is an opportunity for schools to instill better habits in our kids.

Second, there is a financial incentive for schools to provide locally-sourced foods at school meals. While there are numerous environmental and nutrition reasons to support this, I add to the discussion another important factor to consider, and that is the issue of the TASTE of the foods involved. There is no question that foods that are subject to the shortest amount of time between harvest and consumption, and those that have to travel the fewest miles to the table, are fresher, and therefore superior in quality and flavor. Even young children can be taught to appreciate this difference.

Third, I support the fact that the bill introduces children to the concept of school gardens. Numerous studies, and many parents, including our First Lady Michelle Obama, will tell you that children who are personally vested in growing or cooking their foods are more receptive to eating them.

Fourth, the language in the bill defines “unprocessed” foods not only as those that contain no chemical additives, further processing or are in some way manufactured, but as those that are unnecessarily chopped, peeled, cut or in other ways altered from natural form. The inclusion of this detailed language in the bill is important in educating children about food, and even in preventing “Picky Eating.” Learning to appreciate the perfect flavor of unaltered food products – such as a whole apple, versus canned applesauce or packaged apple slices, and oranges versus orange juice – goes a long way towards teaching children that foods do not have to be “processed” to make them acceptable to the palate.

And finally, the bill establishes a requirement that any foods marketed through the schools, including those that supply materials to classrooms, must meet specific nutritional guidelines. I write extensively in my book about the blatant commercialization and rampant advertising of unhealthful food products that takes place in most public school systems across the country, with no regulation and often without parental knowledge or approval. I am proud to think that DC could be a leader in putting a stop to this.

My one concern about this bill, based on some knowledge of our bureaucratic ways, is that it may impose so many regulations that it will dictate that only large agri-businesses with adequate staffing to plow through red tape will be able to comply. I advise those who would be in charge of administering this bill to be cautious of this.

To those who question the cost and efforts needed to accommodate the provisions of this bill, I would say that this is simply a question of our priorities as citizens of this city. Are we content to just go along with the sub-par norms followed by school districts in many cities? Or do we want to be leaders in a movement to better educate our kids about the importance of the choices they make about what foods they eat? Do we want to create excellence and expectations in this area, which will then lead to excellence in other facets of our educational system? Don’t we all know that investing in quality products today will reap benefits down the road?

Our DC public schools can and should play an important role in not only in providing a nutritionally sound diet, but also in educating children about foods. For many of our children, school provides two of the three meals that they may eat in a day. Lessons learned and habits developed here are life long, and may have the further effect of influencing parents and other family members.

Nancy Piho is a D.C. parent and author of the book, My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More "Healthy Schools" Testimony: Andrea Northup

By Andrea Northup

My name is Andrea Northup, and I coordinate the DC Farm to School Network - a broad-based
coalition working to get more healthy, local foods into Washington, DC schools, and to
reconnect schoolchildren with where their food comes from. I work closely with many of the
people this bill will directly impact - teachers, principals, food service directors, food producers,
parents and students. I am here to voice the D.C. Farm to School Network’s support for Farm to School in the Healthy Schools Act.

I am not the first to highlight some of the problems this bill is trying to address - Washington,
DC has the third highest child poverty rate and the ninth highest percentage of overweight and
obese children in the nation. A stunning 81% of D.C. children are reportedly NOT getting their
recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. And we all know that getting kids
to eat healthy is not just as easy as serving healthy foods on their plate.

Farm to school programs address these issues by connecting schools with local farms in order to
serve healthy foods in school meals and educate kids about where food comes from. The bottom
line is that when local foods are served in school cafeterias, and kids feel a connection to them,
they eat more servings of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables! It’s been proven in cafeterias

Why do kids eat more healthy foods when they’re a part of a farm to school program? Local
foods taste delicious because they are picked at the peak of their flavor and nutrient content.
Have you tasted a fresh, juicy, tomato picked in September? Compare that to it’s artificially-
ripened and well-traveled white mealy counterpart served in February. When kids feel a
connection with their food - be it by growing food in a school garden, visiting a farm, or cooking
with a chef - they are more likely to appreciate and eat that food.

Since farm to school programs increase fruit and vegetable consumption, they reduce the risk of
child childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases, and promote optimal physical health,
growth, and intellectual development, energy levels and mental alertness. Local foods are
typically grown with fewer harmful chemicals and hormones. Farm to school programs reduce
the miles that school food travels, thus reducing pollution and carbon footprints while at the
same time supporting our vibrant local food economy.

A new study out this month shows that in many cases, farm to school programs can make smart
financial sense for school food service operations once they are in place. Schools serve a higher
quality product that kids are excited to eat, and thus see increased satisfaction and participation
rates that draw down more federal reimbursements. Plus, seasonal foods can be cheaper, when
farmers have a surplus of certain foods that are priced to move. These programs benefit everyone--kids, food services, the environment and the community.

Schools across the country are finding creative ways to incorporate healthy, local, sustainable
foods into school meals - in fact, over 2,000 school districts in 43 states have farm to school
programs. Large, urban school districts are no exception - some of the most progressive include
Chicago, Denver, New York and St. Paul. And right next door, Baltimore City Public Schools
serve all-Maryland grown fresh fruits and vegetables year round - and they’ve seen their produce consumption rates jump and meal participation rates increase.

But Washington, DC is lagging behind the rest of the country. Let’s take a look at why this is so,
and how the Healthy Schools Act can help.

First, farm to school is not necessarily on the radar of schools and food service providers. They
have systems in place to buy foods from large wholesalers and retailers from all over the
country, and their curricula revolves solely around standardized testing scores. We strongly feel that the City Council must put pressure on schools and food service providers to buy healthy, local, sustainable foods whenever costs are within reasonable variation of conventional food costs.

There are a wide variety of foods available in the mid-Atlantic region from early spring to late
winter - apples, broccoli, carrots, beans, sweet corn, melon, onions, squash, peas, potatoes, pears, peaches - the list goes on! In season, these foods cost the same if not less than similar foods
from around the country - and they’re fresher and taste better. We need to get schools and
vendors to develop purchasing systems that take advantage of the local food economy around us, and the encouragement won’t cost a dime.

But encouragement is not enough - schools and food service providers NEED financial
incentives to serve healthy, local foods and get kids excited about where their food comes from.
The most recent data we have on the actual cost of school food is from the 2005/2006 school
year, which is that schools spend on average $1.09 per meal on food. That number comes from
subtracting all of the overhead costs (labor, supplies, utensils, lights in the cafeteria, etc.) from
the federal school meal reimbursement ($2.70 for a “free” meal for which over 70% of D.C.
students qualify). Food and labor costs have gone up since then. That’s not much wiggle room.

Serving local, sustainably grown foods in school meals can be more expensive than conventional
foods if there is not a system in place to purchase, process, store and distribute those foods. I’ve
talked with MANY school food service providers about this issue. They agree that the best
possible incentive would be for schools to submit receipts each month for the purchase of
unprocessed, healthy, local foods used in school meals - perhaps from a list of qualifying foods
like Connecticut. Each month the Office of the State Superintendent of Education would give
schools a 10% rebate on those purchases along with their monthly reimbursements. This way the incentive would be tied directly to local food purchasing, and it wouldn’t be too much of an
administrative burden.

If 100% of schools participated and purchased 10% local products in the 2010/2011 school year
(an incredibly high estimate) - the incentive would cost around $30,000. That is a SMALL price to pay to incentivize healthy, local foods that kids will actually eat.

In order to really kick-start farm to school programs in the District, the Council should make
good on its offer to provide a central production kitchen for public and public charter schools.
Cities across the country have developed similar facilities that provide jobs, stimulate economies, and take advantage of scale while providing schools with a central receiving, storage, processing
and transportation “node” for healthy, local foods.

Critical to this entire process is that the Healthy Schools Act require schools and food service
providers to disclose where the food they serve comes from and how it is grown. Forcing
schools to do this will get them to think about where their food comes from, whereas right now
many haven’t a clue. Without this baseline reporting, we can’t hold schools accountable and
can’t expect them to change.

And none of this will be possible unless government agencies are required to collaborate with
schools, community organizations and the private sector to promote farm to school programs
happen in the cafeteria, and connect them with classroom education and community efforts.
We call for a mandatory Farm to School promotional week each year and regular education and
promotion of the farm to school program to students and staff - this is CRUCIAL. We have the
support from the bottom up - we just need it from the top down.

Most kids (especially those at risk of hunger) get their main meals each day at school, but school
meals do more than just deliver the nutrients kids need to thrive and learn. They form eating
habits that persist later in life, and spread to families and communities. If current obesity trends continue, we will spend about $933 per adult in the District of Columbia on obesity related
health care in 2018, or about $341 million total. We can’t afford not to tackle the issue of
obesity. As the First Lady has so eloquently pointed out, it starts with what we feed our children
in schools.

The DC Farm to School Network represents hundreds of partners, many of whom either
submitted testimony or testified today, who care about the health of the District’s schoolchildren, our community, the environment and our local food economy. I have had the pleasure of working with teachers, students, food service providers, farmers, processors, private and non-profit sector leaders, chefs, educators and urban gardeners. We see the value in farm to school programs for D.C. kids, our environment, and our community. We promise to do everything we possibly can to make farm to school happen here in the nation’s capital, and we hope the Council will, too.

Andrea Northup is the coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What's for Lunch: Pizza

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Pizza, usually containing donated government commodities, arrives pre-cooked and frozen at D.C. Schools. It's easily transferred to a baking sheet and heated in a convection oven. Pepperoni also arrives frozen in separate bags, so it's no trick to turn plain cheese pizzas into pepperoni pizzas.

The salad is composed of iceberg lettuce shipped in bags from California. Inside the bags of lettuce are smaller bags of processed carrots and shredded red cabbage. Everything is tossed together and served as a "mixed" salad, along with a foil packet of Kraft ranch dressing.

We are grateful for the fresh pear. The pear was not particularly ripe, and it's more than any grade schooler will probably eat. That means lots of waste. But it's better than the canned fruit loaded with sugar the kids usually receive.

Notice the milk: it's not flavored. In fact, I didn't see any flavored milk being served with the pizza. I asked my daughter about this and she said the school does not serve flavored milk with pizza. I've asked the food service director for D.C. schools if, in fact, there is a policy not to serve flavored milk with pizza. I'm still waiting for a reply.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

The New York Times likes Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" show. So does nutritionist Marion Nestle.


A bill re-authorizing the Child Nutrition Act cleared the U.S. Senate's agriculture, including a 6-cent raise in the federal reimbursement for school meals (not much at all), greater access to the federal program for students and authorization for the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate all foods served in schools, meaning vending machines and a la carte items as well as the subsidized lunch line.

Here's a summary presented by USA Today.


The Healthy School Campaign published a concise explanation and helpful graphic explaining how the increase in school meal funding proposed by the Senate agriculture committee does not even measure up to the annual cost of living increases the program receives.


The Washington Post's Jane Black spent some time with the new director of food services for D.C. Public Schools, Jeffrey Mills, and filed this profile, along with a general overview of some of the issues facing the city's school cafeterias.


The Civil Eats blog published short essays from a variety of school food authorities explaining what they think needs to be done to improve cafeteria food. Advice ranges from involving local farmers more, to adding up to $1 a day for every child in the federal meals program.


Debate swirled around a study from Princeton University claiming that rats fed a diet heavy with high-fructose corn syrup gained more weight than those with access to regular sugar.


A teacher from the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, takes the method to children in Thailand. Great photos.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Testifying for "Healthy Schools"

Several friends of Better D.C. School Food testified yesterday before the D.C. Council on proposed "Healthy Schools" legislation. Ed Bruske has posted his testimony at his blog, The Slow Cook. We are endeavoring to find a way to display everyone's tetimony in a place where it can easily be seen. Meanwhile, here is the testimony of one of our founding members, Tara Flakker.

Hello. My name is Tara Flakker. I am here representing a relatively new organization, Parents for Better D.C. School Food, which arises out of the parents committee of the D.C. Farm to School Network, where I have been volunteering for the last several months.

For too long, parents in the District of Columbia have been relatively silent on the issue of the food being served in our public schools. But in the face of an epidemic of childhood obesity, it is time for parents to mobilize and join the struggle not only to make school food better, but to make lunch a teachable moment in which children can learn healthy eating habits that will last them into adulthood.

To that end, Parents for Better D.C. School Food is committed to reaching out to every PTA and other parents organization in the city to raise awareness about the need for a more healthful diet and to support efforts by school officials and local lawmakers to implement the necessary changes in our school cafeterias. So far, we have 40 members of our Google group, 80 “fans” of our Facebook page, and a blog where we post news about D.C. school food every day, including stunning--though not always entirely appetizing—photographs of school meals.

Therefore, we heartily support the “Healthy Schools Act” and its call for an integrated approach toward child wellness and a sustainable environment. Specifically, we support measures that would incorporate local farm products in school meals to make them more appetizing and nutritious. We support a sustainable, local agriculture. We support increased levels of exercise for all children. We support school gardens and local food initiatives that teach children where their food comes from. We believe that children who are engaged in the ways of growing and preparing foods are more willing to try healthful foods and embrace a healthier lifestyle.

We recognize that this legislation proposes to undo decades of policies that have short-changed school cafeterias and child wellness. That is no small task. But we are ready to do whatever it might take win this battle for our own kids and for the next generation.

My work with the D.C. Farm to School Network and now Parents for Better D.C. School Food is informed by my personal experience. I am the mother of two children attending public school on Capitol Hill. I am also an MSW and spent more than 10 years working with children and families before deciding to stay at home full-time with my family. I am also the granddaughter of a small dairy farmer in the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania. I know the importance of providing opportunities for local farmers. And because I have small children in school, I want to see them fed well. As a former social worker, I want all children to be fed well.

What do I mean by “well fed?” First and foremost, that means replacing the steady diet of highly processed foods currently practiced by D.C. schools with whole and minimally processed ingredients, hopefully grown by our own local farmers. It is a sad irony that the foods we know are healthiest—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains—are also the foods kids like least. It will take a great deal of work—parents, teachers and administrators working together—to turn this around. But programs that involve local farmers, visits to farms, food demonstrations and classes, as proposed in the “Healthy Schools Act” are part of the solution. School gardens and things like after-school cooking classes centered on school gardens also are an invaluable tool for teaching children to appreciate where food comes from and a healthier way of eating. We cannot expect kids to learn these lessons from television, or from eating out of the corner convenience store.

In addition, school gardens can be a tremendous community asset and pull teachers, parents and local residents together. I live across the street from Watkins Elementary School, which has a wonderful school garden program already in place. The garden easily integrates science, art, reading and virtually every other aspect of learning in some form. It also serves to beautify the neighborhood.

I’d also like to speak for a moment specifically about what happens in school cafeterias. Unfortunately, most parents are unaware of the food being served at school except what they might hear second-hand from their children. Therefore, it is imperative that you adopt measures for more transparency in school food service, such as posting the ingredients in school meals in a place where all of us can see them. We are particularly concerned about the appalling level of sugar in school meals. In addition to the sugar served at breakfast and lunch, treats and candy are routinely given as rewards. My son has come home from school with a bag of cookies he received as a reward more times than I can count. Treats are great. But when they are provided at school, this limits my ability as a parent to offer the occasional treat, such as a piece of daddy’s leftover carrot cake. It is high time we limit the amount of sugar served at school.

We know that there already are many people who care about these issues. Teachers are ready and willing to teach about food where they can. Our school (name?) found the money to host its first parent meeting with real food made by a parent and local fresh food brought in for salads, appetizers and dessert. Everyone who attended was amazed and delighted. Parents and children alike asked where we got the apples and pears and salad because they had never tasted anything so good.

“Those Asian pears are like a party in your mouth” one parent remarked. And so the education begins.

Many children in D.C. eat two meals a day at school all year long, including summer programs. I and other Parents for Better D.C. School Food believe we owe it to our children to feed them properly, just as we ask them to do their best at learning. We should be nourishing the body, the mind and the spirit through food, education and physical activity. These concepts are all addressed in the “Healthy School Act.” With this bill, we can begin honoring our children by giving them what they need to be healthy adults.

$6.5 Million Tab for "Healthy Schools"

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Improved nutrition, easier access to school food and incorporating local produce in school meals would cost the District an estimated $6.5 million annually under proposed "Healthy Schools" legislation, according to the D.C. government's Chief Financial Officer, Natwar M. Gandi.

Gandi released written testimony yesterday indicating that most of that money would be spent on increasing the city's contribution to school meals by 10 cents for breakfast and 10 cents for lunch, as well as a 5 cent bonus for meals that contain locally grown products, free breakfast for all students and covering the cost currently paid by students who qualify for reduced-price meals under the federally-subsidized meal program.

The cost of the legislation, which had previously been undetermined, brought out a parade of charter school officials complaining that they did not have the means to pay for it. They appeared at hearings before D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of the bill.

"This is much like 'No Child Left Behind,' full of unfunded mandates," said Donald Hense, of Friendship Public Charter School. "The financial incentives are not enough for us to change our food service."

Along with setting healthier food standards, the legislation also mandates increased physical activity for children. Charter school officials said in many cases their schools have neither the funds nor the facilities to comply with the proposed standards. "How can charter schools implement all this?" said Josphine Baker, executive director of the Public Charter School Board. "Ten cents for breakfast and lunch is just barely enough. It could be cost prohibitive for all schools to use local produce. It's a challenge sometimes to provide both a rigorous education and healthy, nutritious meals."

Gandi estimated the total cost of the legislation for the city's charter schools at $1.6 million. Cheh vowed that she will find funding to cover all of the bills requirements. "We fully appreciate the costs," she said. "I'm working assiduously on getting that money. And I'm pretty much sure that I will get that money."

Cheh added that the legislation will save money in the long run in reduced health costs for city residents. "Even if it cost money and we didn't save money, how much is it worth to have people lead healthy lives?" Cheh said. "We will save money and have better lives.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The School Food Revolution Will Be Televised

By Samuel Fromartz

In an interview with Brit chef and self-styled food revolutionary Jamie Oliver, John Hockenberry over at the Takeaway says "I can't decide if you're the Kung Fu Zen master or The Beatles invading our shores."

What Hockenberry's referring to of course is Oliver's "The Food Revolution," which began airing last Friday on ABC and has its second episode tomorrow. The conceit: Oliver visits Huntington, West Virginia, a town of 50,000 that ranks highest in obesity in America, and tries to change its eating habits through the entry point of the school cafeteria.

The reception Oliver receives is neither one a Zen master or The Beatles would expect. Instead of quiet disciples or cheering teen-age girls, the chilly school lunchroom staff wonder just what the hell he's up to. I sympathized with them, after all, the idea that Oliver is launching a food revolution in the U.S. is, well, a tad overplayed, ya think? Regardless, he has a point to make, one which needs to be made given the sad state of our diet.

By the looks of it, Huntington is eating a lot of junk, through really no more than the rest of country. What sort of "food"? Pizza for breakfast at school, chocolate and strawberry flavored milk (which The Slow Cook pointed out was nearly indistinguishable from Mountain Dew), chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders. The only real food on the school menu is the fresh-baked bread the school kitchen makes but most of which sadly ends up in the rubbish bin, as the Brits call it. Mashed potatoes form when water is added to a pearly substance. When Oliver makes roast chicken -- gosh! real chicken, not frozen stuff - the staff is nearly in shock but the kids don't bite. They go for the pizza, again.

When Oliver pitches his plan to local radio host DJ Rod, he's nearly spit-roasted. "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day," Rod says. "Who made you the King?" What Rod doesn't seem to get is that his neighbors are dying more quickly because of what they eat. But maybe he can't get past the messenger.

Oliver clearly has his work cut out for him. In one home, he cooks up the mom's usual daily fare -- pizza, chicken tenders, corn dogs, donuts, etc., etc., without a fresh vegetable in sight. The family ends the scene by burying the fat fryer in the backyard.

Oliver's not alone here. In fact, the series coincides with the rather rich debate going on over school lunch and childhood obesity. You have Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, the passage by a Senate panel of a modest increase in the school lunch budget, the enormous and significant work of Renegade Lunch Lady Chef Ann Cooper, and on and on. For another take, check out Fed Up with School Lunch, which features daily offerings at a Chicago school cafeteria by an anonymous teacher who's actually eating the stuff, every day! Clearly a revolution is underway, but it's only just getting going.

The first episode of The Food Revolution is on Hulu if you missed it. When you get finished watching Oliver's trials, check out this talk Chef Ann gave three years ago at TED.

This post originally appeared on ChewsWise.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kids Are Getting What They Want, Not What They Need

By Tara Flakker

I just finished watching the preview of the new Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution show via Tivo. (The show begins at it's regular time and day on Friday, March 26th, at 9pm EST on ABC) I am fired up about the fact that kitchen cooks at the school profiled in the show have the nerve to say "this is food and it is good". Then, adding that they would and do eat it.

Let's just start by finding a way to diagnose what is being served at schools for lunch and breakfast. Trained as a social worker I would begin my diagnosis by doing the old "rule out" piece first. I, for one, rule out calling what schools are serving "food." And I think I can safely jump to Michael Pollan's definition of what he calls "edible, food-like substance".

I am not okay with feeding our kids "edible, food-like substances" instead of real food. We have seen a food revolution here in America for some time now. And while a part of me cringes at aligning myself with a television show, I must say I'm putting a little hope in this show.

This will be the first time that America will see what's really going on in school cafeterias via mass media. Millions of families who send their kids to school each day, hoping that U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations are good enough, are going to be watching. They are going to come face to face with the fact that our kids are not getting what they need, but what they want.

As parents, we know all to well about just giving our kids what they want. It never works. Never in the long term. Giving kids what they want is a short-term solution to a long- term problem. But in the case of food and what children eat, we are not just going to find that the results are an overblown sense of self, or the inability to self-regulate. Where food is concerned, the cost of failure is very high. As Jamie Oliver so eloquently points out, the cost literally involves children's lives. We are feeding them "edible, food-like substances" instead of real food because it is easy, because it is cheap, because it meets the bottom line.

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of hearing Barbara Martin from the mid-Atlantic regional USDA offices speak at a conference. She mentioned the Jamie Oliver show. She admitted that the show was not going to be very positive about school food. She said, in fact, that it was going to be pretty bad. She then took the challenge of the show as an opportunity to speak out about the things they--meaning food service working around the country--are doing right.

I would like to hear that response. I would like to know how potato pearls (highlighted in the show) meet USDA guidelines. I would like to know what else is in the potato pearls that exceeds the definition of "food." You know, those things that are added that throw it over the edge to being an "edible, food-like substance."

So while I normally would not tout a television show I urge all of us to watch this one. I urge us also to sign Jamie's petition. It's a small step, but an easy one.

So now we have people listening. No more talking about what kids want. Let's start talking about what kids need.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chicago Taking "Treats" Off School Menus

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The Chicago Tribune reports today that schools there are undertaking a major revamping of menus, removing sugary foods such as Pop-Tarts and embracing Institute of Medicine recommendations that call for more vegetables and whole grains.

Chicago public schools use the same food service provider--Chartwells--as the District of Columbia, where Pop-Tarts and candied cereals are routinely served for breakfast. The Chicago schools will reduce serving nachos to just once a week in high school, and once a month in elementary schools. According to the Tribune, sweet packaged desserts will also be reduced to weekly treats. Doughnuts and Pop-Tarts will be eliminated entirely.

The new guidelines state that "no items served may contain 'dessert of candy type' ingredients or flavors such as chocolate etc." But apparently this does not apply to flavored milk. Another exception to the rule is Chocolate Mini-Wheats cereal--also served here in the District--because it is high in fiber. The new Chicago rules require that all breakfast cereals contain no more than five grams of sugar unless they provide three or more grams of fiber.

The Tribune further reports that the new rules "include meal planning guidelines that generally meet Institute of Medicine recommendations developed last year at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture" that call for increased servings of vegetables and whole grains. But it was unclear whether the Chicago approach included the IOM's call for increased portion sizes of vegetables, which has been rejected by drafters of "Healthy Schools" legislation pending before the D.C. Council because school officials say they can't guarantee kids will eat the vegetables they make and not throw them in the trash.

The Tribune reporter who wrote the story, Monica Eng, said in an e-mail she believes the schools are specifically targeting nachos, cookies, Pop-Tart and doughnuts "because of specific page one stories I wrote singling them out." Eng has been nominated for a James Beard award for a story she wrote about nachos served daily in Chicago schools.

Confessions of a Child Nutrition Lobbyist

By Becky Levin

While we are plugging away at local efforts to improve school meals in D.C., Congress is reviewing or “reauthorizing” the federal law which sets policies and mandates funds for all child nutrition programs spanning school meals and snacks, child care and Head Start meals and snacks, and WIC- a program for pregnant women and young children. The whole package is called Child Nutrition reauthorization (CNR), and is updated about every five years. The process starts today in the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee.

The good news is that most of the funding is mandated. That means we don’t have to fight for funding every year. This bill sets funding levels for approximately five years. And it generally receives bipartisan support, even in this incredibly divisive Congress.

President Barack Obama has set the stage for CNR by including an increase of $1 billion each year for CNR. This is the largest increase ever proposed, but it would be spread over programs that feed 33 million school-aged children and 3 million children in child care programs.

So what does $1 billion buy for 36 million children in one year? Not as much as we would like, but it is an important start to provide healthier meals and snacks through child nutrition programs and to address the scary explosion of hunger in children in this difficult economy and the spikes in childhood obesity.

The bill proposed by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AK), head of the Senate's agriculture committee, comes in at just under half the size of the President’s proposal- $4.5 billion over 10 years. Her bill would raise the federal subsidy for school meals--currently $2.68 for each fully-subsidized lunch--by 6 cents. In fact, this is less than what the school meals programs receive every year as routine cost-of-living increases.

Recent blog posts here have pointed out that Pop Tarts, graham crackers and sugary flavored milk can pose as breakfast, while burgers and tater tots are lunch staples. But that won’t fly, and neither will junk food in vending machines, with recent recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) requiring more whole grains, leaner proteins, and more fruits and vegetables. Schools would need to prove compliance with new USDA guidelines based on IOM’s recommendations to be eligible for the rate increase. Further, the bill would authorized the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish national nutrition standards for all foods sold on the school campus throughout the school day, including foods sold outside the subsidized food line--so-called "competitive" foods--and vending machines.

But it’s not just about the money. The Senate draft bill improves access to free meals for children living in poverty (eliminating a multiplicity of forms), makes afterschool meals available nationally, and may expand summer and breakfast programs. It also provides resources to train school food workers and expands farm to school programs.

At the end of the day, though, the new “rules” impose costs. And the costs for the improvements that we would like to see far exceed money available. While Congress talks about the importance of funding better school and child care meals, finding the money is tough.

You wouldn’t believe what a hard-fought battle it has been to get 6 cents a meal. And the program for child care, which feeds our nation’s youngest, most vulnerable kids, doesn’t even have a rate increase included. But even 6 cents won’t cut it in terms of really making meals more nutritious. What we really need are dollars and not cents. What we really need is an overhaul in our nation’s boondoggle farm policies which subsidize crops like corn, so that corn syrup is rampant in the food supply and the unhealthiest foods are the cheapest and most accessible.

What we really need is an agriculture policy that support health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, and sound economics, so that the healthiest foods can also be the most affordable and widely available.

Until then, I fear that our nation will be plagued by obesity and its related health disorders. All the wellness policies in the world won’t help communities who can’t afford to eat healthy food or purchase healthy food nearby.

But I digress. I truly do believe that this bill is a start in the right direction, even if it’s not the giant leap forward that I’d like to see. The bill could possibly expand and pick up more funding before as it moves through the full Senate. And it sounds like the House of Representatives is committed to working toward the President’s proposed funding levels.

So what can you do? Well, most of us are here in D.C.--especially our sole representative in Congress, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton--are not represented on the committees that will influence this bill. But we all need to engage our friends and family nationwide in the effort to improve CNR to set better school meal standards and fund the increased costs.

Good nutrition is one of the easiest ways to improve health. This bill should be perceived as a companion to health care reform in terms of its potential to positively impact health for our country.

Becky Levin is a mom living on Capitol Hill and lobbies on child nutrition issues on behalf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Say Cheese

By LC Cokinos

I did it. I went back to school and got in line last week with a bunch of fourth graders braving the gambit of "hot lunch" at Key Elementary School. Lunch was "Herbed Beef Italiano," though the kids referred to the ground meat as bbq barf. (Not much has changed since I was in school after all.) Most of them opted for the grim looking noodles naked, but the beef sauce was surprisingly flavorful, and the noodles were pretty much inedible without it. There was also a salad, and I have to say that was pretty good with fresh cold lettuce

I talked to Ms Coates, our cafeteria manager, who does the best she can with whatever is given to her. Key School is one of the few newly renovated schools in D.C., and it has an enormous kitchen, but it's missing one rather key component- a stove. (I'm not sure how to explain that except for the expression "how D.C. is that?") Today's lunch was Pizza Fiestada (which our principal referred to as the meat lover's, but is really a brand name Mexican pie) and cheese pizza- both of which came with a tiny bag of raw carrots. Apples and a whole wheat deli wrap were offered as an alternative.

Most of the kids predictably went for the pizza which arrives frozen and is baked by Ms Coates on site. It wasn't bad at all, but I did notice I was inordinantly thirsty after the last lunch so I grabbed a low fat milk this time. What could they do to that? All I can say is I was astounded when I saw the milk matched the pink carton. If only I had read Breakfast: Another Dose of Sugar , which Ed Bruske posted yesterday, I would have been prepared for the phenomenon known as strawberry milk. It's got to go.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Breakfast: Another Dose of Sugar

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's how D.C. kids get sugared-up at school in the morning: strawberry-flavored milk poured over Apple Jacks. I know, this picture looks staged, like a studio shot. But I assure you the person pouring the milk and eating the cereal was actually a third-grader. This time of year, we happen to get fantastic light through an east-facing wall of windows in the cafeteria of my daughter's elementary school, which makes for this striking photo.

The strawberry milk contains 28 grams of sugar in an 8-ounce carton. That's the equivalent of more than six teaspoons of sugar, a bit less than Mountain Dew. Of course, nearly half that sugar comes from lactose that occurs naturally in the milk. The rest is high-fructose corn syrup, which increasingly is being linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The Apple Jacks are made by Kellogg's, a company with a huge footprint in D.C. school cafeterias. That's probably because giant food corporations like Kellogg's give big "rebates''--sometimes called kickbacks--to food service providers who use their products. These are like the stocking charges in supermarkets. The food makers pay to have their brands displayed.

Chartwells, the contracted food provider for D.C. Public Schools, itself is a huge company with a presence in more than 550 school districts around the country. With its vast distribution of products, it stands to take in huge sums of money in "rebates" from companies like Kellogg's. This might help explain why kids in D.C. are eating sugary cereals such as Apple Jacks in the morning.

A .63-ounce container of Apple Jacks contains 8 grams of sugar, about two teaspoons. Here are the other ingredients listed on the package:
Whole grain corn flour, wheat flour, whole grain oat flour, oat fiber, soluble corn fiber, salt, milled corn, dried apples, apple juice concentrate, cornstarch, cinnamon, natural and artificial flavor, sodium ascorbate and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), modified corn starch, yellow #6, niacinimide, reduced iron, zinc oxide, turmeric color, baking soda, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), blue #1, calcium phosphate, riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Thiamin Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), red #40, Vitamin A Palmitate, BHT (Preservative), folic acid, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12.

There is some controversy surrounding BHT because it has been suspected of causing hyperactivity in children. But it is also sold in health food stores for purported anti-viral effects.

Tracking Obesity in "Healthy Schools"

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Re-tooled language in "Healthy Schools" legislation scheduled for a public hearing before the D.C. Council this week would require city schools to provide parents each year with a measurement of the body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio of every child, as well as an estimate of the amount of exercise each child engages in. It also calls on city schools to consider extending the school day in order for children to have more time for physical activity, and would offer grants to schools that commit to making students more active.

Schools would also be required to send parents information in English and Spanish explaining how to interpret unhealthy body mass and waist-to-hip information and what steps can be taken to address weight problems.

Drafters of the legislation last week backed away from strict nutrition standards recommended by the Institute of Medicine that would require increased portion sizes of vegetables served in school meals, saying schools cannot guarantee the quality of vegetables served in cafeterias or that students won't throw them in the trash.

Instead, the legislation embraces requirements set forth in the U.S. Department of Agriculture "HealthierUS School Challenge," which establishes several different levels of stringency in school food nutrition.

The "Healthy Schools" bill would require all D.C. public school to adopt the "gold" level of the USDA program, meaning school cafeterias would have to offer 1/4-cup servings of dark green or orange vegetables three or more days per week, and cooked dry beans or peas once perweek. Schools would also be required to offer a different fruit, either fresh, frozen, canned, dried or 100 percent juice, every day of the week, but 100 percent fruit juice could be counted as fruit only once per week. At least one serving of whole-grain food would be offered each day.

The new bill also drops an attempt to create detailed nutrition standards for foods served outside the reqular food line in school cafeterias--so-called "competitive" foods--as well as those sold in vending machines and in school stores. Again, the "HealthierUS School Challenge" standards would apply. Total fat in those foods could be no more than 35 percent of calories, trans fat must be less than .5 grams per serving, saturated fat less than 10 percent and sugar no more than 35 percent by weight.

The only beverages allowed would be low-fat or skim milk, 100 percent fruit juice with no sweeteners and water, meaning no sugary sodas, sports drinks or ice teas. The standards would not apply to foods and beverages offered at official after-school events.

Among the other major features of the new "Healthy Schools" draft:

* Minimum and maximum calorie limits for school breakfast and lunch at all grade levels.

* Zero trans fats is school meals.

* Random testing of school meals to ensure that nutrition standards are being met.

* An additional 10 cents in funding for each breakfast and 10 cents for each lunch.

*Full funding for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch.

* Offer breakfast in the classroom in all elementary schools where at least 40 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, and other alternative methods of serving breakfast in qualifying middle and high schools.

* Phasing in minimum levels of exercise over a five-year period for elementary and middle-school students, from 30 minutes per week to 150 minutes per week for children in Kindergarten through grade five, and from 45 minutes per week to 225 minutes per week for children in grades six through eight. Sources say the demand for more physical activity is one area where the legislation is meeting some resitance, because it might cut into class time. The most recent draft calls on schools to "seek to increase physical activity by considering extending the school day."

As part of better nutrition, the bill requires schools to incorporate local farm products in school meals "whenever possible" and would fund a five-cent bonus for lunches that include local produce. It also calls for a school food gardening program.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

Congratulations to Andrea Northup and her crew of volunteers for putting on a fantastic conference last week connecting local schools with food service directors who have successfully incorporated local farm products into their school meals.

Doug Davis, of the Burlington, Vermont, schools gave a fascinating keynote address explaining how, over a period of years, the schools there have reached out to local farmers and switched national brands for local products and still managed to stay within budget. Closer to home, Andrea Early told how schools in Harrisonburg, Virginia, have similarly brought local fruits and vegetables to cafeteria trays.

See! It can be done....


'Jaimie Oliver's Food Revolution," wherein the celebrity British chef tackles the obesity problem in Huntington, West Virginia--dubbed America's unhealthiest city--begins airing tonight at 10 on ABC. Washington Post TV critic Hank Steuver is not impressed, saying Oliver "regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap."

Apparently, Oliver didn't get a warm reception, exactly, from the folks in Huntington. At one point, he visits a local radio station where the DJ quips: "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?"

At a local elementary school, Oliver watches "breakfast pizza" being served and remarks, "It's that kind of food that's killing America." To which one of the cooks replies: "You don't have processed food in England?"

Still, Americans stand to learn a bit about the true nature of school food by tuning in.


Michelle Obama addressed food manufacturers last week about her anti-obesity campaign, "Let's Move," and nutritionist/author Marion Nestle applauds. Here, Nestle gives an account of how some companies are responding to the obesity message--and how much some of them are spending to lobby for their own interests.


Coke and Pepsi have joined a group of food giants who say they support giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture autority to regulate all foods sold in schools--not just those offered in the reimbursible lunch line--which could mean the end of "junk" food in schools.

Pepsi is also running ads boasting that the company is removing sugary sodas from schools worldwide over the next two years.


Finally, a Child Nutrition Act re-authorization that would boost the federal subsidy for school lunch a measly 6 cents received an official markup in the U.S. Senate. Over at Grist, Tom Philpott offers this analysis.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

On the Prowl for Best Nachos

By LC Cokinos

I am a freelance writer and have three kids who have attended or are attending five different DC Public schools: Wilson, Duke Ellington School for the Arts, Hardy Middle School and Key Elementary. Things have changed over the years, but for the most part my kids didn't want to have anything to do with school lunch. Okay, there was that one time 10 years ago when my eldest was in third grade, and she thought Ms. Deez made the "best pizza" ever. (It was pre-packaged and heated up at school.) Key has been renovated since then and has an amazing though underutilized kitchen. Still my current fourth grader is not too fond of lunch.

Here's his report on his favorite dish:

"I like the nachos because it's make your own. Well, they aren't really nachos because there's all this cheese and a mystery meat and beans, and I don't like beans, and it's not cooked, but it's good."

Next installment - I infiltrate the cafeteria at Key and see for myself.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Beautiful Lunch in Japan

By Daniel Ferguson

Hi everyone, my name is Daniel, or Daniel sensei as I'm called at school. Every day, I eat lunch with my little students at 3 nursery schools near Hiroshima, Japan, where I teach English.

Earlier this month, we had a special lunch in celebration of hina matsuri, a holiday where an ancient story of a Japanese prince and princess is remembered through displaying ornamental dolls and preparing traditional food.

Our menu (from the left): white fish, aemono (cold vegetable dish) with carrots, cabbage, broccoli and sesame seeds, and strawberries, sushi rice with carrots, broccoli, and shitake mushrooms, wrapped in egg or seaweed, representing the princess and prince, soup made from konbu dashi (broth from seaweed) green onions, enoki mushrooms and colored rice dumplings.

I spoke with one of the cook teachers, as they are respectfully called in Japan, who came back from maternity leave to help with the cooking. She explained how the aesthetic for Japanese holiday foods is "komakai" meaning detailed and carefully made. It's designed to be colorful, use several kinds of foods, and is all prepared by hand. For me, however, this meal was only to a greater degree more detailed than lunches usually are at school, which are always handmade and served by the children to other children, with real plates on tablecloths.

At lunch, we waited until all children, about 60 total, had been served soup, fish, and sushi before saying "itadakimasu", a kind of secular grace said before eating in Japan, meaning thanks to those who prepared the food. The cook teachers also joined us and everyone thanked them for the meal they had been preparing all morning. Then they walked around the room responding to children saying "oishii" meaning delicious. And as they always do, the children ate everything, stacked their dishes, and put their chopsticks and cup away to be used again tomorrow.

As I watched children enjoy lunch, I thought about all the love being shared in the room that day, with nothing to compare it to in my experiences of school lunch in America. The most love I think I showed children at my previous school during lunch time was opening their packets of ketchup or dressing they got everyday to cover their meat or quarter cup serving of salad. I opened them because they weren't made for 5-year old hands to open. In fact, little of those lunches were made with children in mind, I thought. Everyday, children threw away their tray, carton, napkin, fork, and their unwanted food into trashcans as tall as them. Everyday a lost opportunity to nourish, educate, and show our love to children.

So when I started working in Japan, I immediately noticed the difference in how children and the food they are given is valued, in and out of the lunchroom. At the nursery schools, I have picked sweet potatoes and strawberries with children. I've seen several cooking lessons, including soups, curries, traditional foods, hot cakes and cookies. A few days after hinamatsuri, parents were invited to the school to make sushi rice with their children, just like what they ate for lunch.

Throughout the year, teachers turn recipes into big books that are read as part of their literacy instruction. Cause and effects of mixing batter and milk are discussed like science experiments. Every year, the 5-year olds of one school plant rice in a nearby field, cut it in the fall, then that rice is cooked in the winter and used to make mochi during an annual festival. All the while they are writing and reading about the experience as part of the curriculum. These nursery schools are not representative of all Japanese schools, but for me, it is reassuring just to know that this way of taking care and educating children does exist. I hope it is for you too.

This essay originally appeared on the Fed Up with School Lunch blog. Daniel Ferguson writes the Mr. Ferguson's Classroom blog. Reposted with permission of the author.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sorry, We Can't Cook: D.C. Schools Say 'No' to More Vegetables

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

In a move that could signal a serious fault line in the argument for more vegetables as a tonic for childhood obesity, drafters of "Healthy Schools" legislation pending before the D.C. Council have skuttled a push for additional produce in school meals after school officials said they cannot guarantee their kitchens can prepare vegetables that kids will actually eat and not throw in the trash.

"More vegetables" has become a mantra of advocates for healthier school food, including first Lady Michell Obama, whose White House vegetable garden created a sensation. The "Healthy Schools" bill, scheduled to come up for a hearing next week, had embraced standards proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that would require larger servings of fruits, vegetables--especially green and organge vegetables and legumes--and whole grains as part of an upgraded school nutrition package designed to bring school meals more in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The IOM panel that made the recommendations, working at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, warned, however, that requiring more produce and whole grains would drive up the cost of school meals, and that there could be no guarantee that children would eat them. The requirement for heftier vegetable servings was dropped from the "Healthy Schools" bill after D.C. school officials asserted they did not want to spend precious resources on food that would only end up being thrown away.

"We heard from many that if schools are serving mushy, flavorless green beans that students are simply throwing away, that doubling the portion size would simply double the amount of mushy, flavorless green beans that are thrown away," said an aide to Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of the bill. "Instead, many have said that we should focus our energy and money first on improving the quality of the foods being served before we consider mandating an increase in portion sizes."

Advocates of farm to school programs here and across the country contend that schools can serve meals that are more healthful and appealing by using more locally grown produce. But vegetables traditionally are a hard sell in school cafeterias. The foods most favored by children are pizza, all forms of potatoes and corn, in that order. As I found while spending a week in the kitchen of my daughter's elementary school here in the District, vegetables typically are cooked to death and rejected by kids. A 1996 nationwide survey of school food service managers by the U.S. General Accounting Office revealed that 42 percent of cooked vegetables — and 30 percent of raw vegetables and salad — ended up in the trash.

The move to eliminate additional vegetables from "Healthy Schools" legislation suggests that mandating better school meals may not work without funding improvements to school kitchens. In fact, the trend in school food service for years has been in just the opposite direction--to reduce labor costs, which represent half of food service costs, by hiring less skilled kitchen workers who do not work enough hours to qualify for benefits. Frequently, school kitchens are staffed by "warmer-uppers" whose sole skill is being able to re-heat foods that have been pre-cooked in distant factories and shipped frozen. Sensitive perishables such as vegetables suffer as a result.

"If we’re going to win Michele Obama’s war on obesity and if her 'Let’s Move' campaign is going to be successful, then we need to ensure healthy delicious food. We need funds to pay for cooking kitchens, to train staff, and to market to kids to eat the food," said Ann Cooper, noted school food activist and director of nutrition for schools in Boulder, Colorado.

"That seems like nonsense about kids not eating the veggies...of course they won't if it looks and tastes like cardboard," said Debra Eschmeyer, director of the National Farm to School Network. "Kids will eat fresh tasty veggies if they have a chance to access them and learn about them. I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes hundreds of times. Kids will eat chard, broccoli, beets, etc. and love it when they have a chance to grow it and have a real learning experience."

The IOM report suggested there might be funds for school kitchen upgrades in the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (PDF) program instituted last year by USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Merrigan has said that nearly $1 billion in federal grant funds used in the past for building rural fire stations, hospitals and community centers could be allocated to food-related projects, such as building storage facilities for locally grown produce, food markets and school kitchens. But schools would need to apply for the money.

In a separate development yesterday, legislation making its way through the U.S. Senate would provide an additional 6 cents per school meal--something less than $500 million more annually--but that money would be contingent on federally-subsidized meal programs adopting the IOM standards. The School Nutrition Association, representing food service directors across the country, has asked for a minimum increase of 35 cents per meal. But others say anything less than $1 a day for each child in the program falls short of what is actually needed.

Still, the retooled "Healthy Schools" legislation sets forth substantial increases in local financial support for school meals, some of which could be used to purchase more vegetables and other healthful ingredients. The bill would provide an additional 10 cents for each breakfast served in D.C. public schools and 10 cents for each lunch, plus a bonus of 5 cents for lunches that include local produce. In addition, the District would fund 50 cents for students who qualify for reduced-price breakfast and lunch, meaning those students would not have to pay for their meals at all.

The bill also provides for construction of a local "super kitchen" where city schools could store and process local produce. The kitchen could also house a greenhouse, bakery or other features and provide a culinary training center.

Significantly, the "Healthy Schools" bill still does not identify funding to pay for the improvements it outlines, but Cheh has vowed to find it.

What's for Breakfast

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Breakfast at my daughter's elementary school yesterday was whole wheat pancakes with milk and orange juice.

Whole wheat sounds good. Meal items such as this typically are pre-cooked in a food factory and shipped to the school in bags, frozen. They are quickly reheated in a commercial steamer or in the kitchen's convection oven. (There currently is no stove for making pancakes fresh).

Good thing these pancakes are so convenient, because there were only two women working in the kitchen this morning to feed about 150 kids. Breakfast was delayed at least 15 minutes while kids lined up outside the door to the steam table.

The pancakes come with "breakfast syrup" from Heinz. There's a picture of a maple leaf on the container, but of course it's not real maple syrup. Here are the ingredients.

"Corn syrup, water, sugar, potassium sorbate as a preservative, caramel color, salt, citric acid, propylene glycol, natural and artificial flavors."

If you were wondering about the propylene glycol, it is a common ingredient in modern anti-freeze and de-icing agents. In the food industry, it's used to keep things moist.

Add Image

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New Study: Kids Who Eat School Food Are Fatter

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

As we reported here yesterday, a new study from the University of Michigan finds that kids who eat the food served in schools are more likely to be overweight or obese than peers who bring lunch from home, and also are more likely to suffer from high levels of "bad" cholesterol.

The study, which examined the eating habits of some 1,300 Michigan sixth-graders over a three-year period, found that children who get their food at school eat more fat, drink more sugary sodas, and consume far fewer fruits and vegetables. The findings, presented last week at the American College of Cardiology annual scientific session, are said to be the first to assess the impact of school food on children's eating behaviors and overall health.

Specifically, 38.8 percent of students who routinely eat school lunch were found to be overweight or obese, compared to 24.4 percent of kids who brought their own food from home. The children consuming school food were twice as likely to drink sodas, and a measly 16.3 percent reported eating fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, compared to 91.2 percent of the kids who got homemade food.

"This study confirms the current and escalating national concern with children’s health, and underscores the need to educate children about how to make healthy eating and lifestyle choices early on,” said Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, in a release put out by the university. “Although this study doesn’t provide specific information on nutrient content of school lunches, it suggests there is a real opportunity to promote healthy behaviors and eating habits within the school environment. This is where kids spend a majority of their time."

It would be dangerous to read too much into a study that is based solely on student questionnaires and suggests correlations, not cause and effect, between self-reported eating habits and specific health issues. For instance, it could be that children who tend to be overweight or obese must eat the food served at school because they get it free courtesy of the federally-subsidized school lunch program. The researchers acknowledge that there could be a correlation "between socioeconomic status and heart health in children of low-income families who take advantage of free school meal programs."

The findings, based on what students reported about their eating habits during the entire day, not just at school, certainly suggest a strong link between what kids learn about food at home and the kinds of food they choose at school. But even parents who pack "healthful" lunches can never be sure what their children are actually eating, the researchers report, since most children in public schools are exposed to "competitive" foods -- those sold outside the regular lunch line -- that encompass all kinds of junk food, as well as the stuff sold in vending machines.

Amy Kalafa, producer of the food documentary Two Angry Moms, filmed herself having her eyes opened to her daughter's true eating habits when she checked the computer records in the school cafeteria. "All our efforts at home were being undermined by the school," Kalafa said yesterday. "When I casually asked for a readout, just to demonstrate how the system worked, I was genuinely shocked to learn that my daughter was regularly buying chips, fries, Rice cCispy treats and Pop Tarts. And it's not just about obesity. Diabetes and sugar sensitivity runs in my family."

My own 10-year-old daughter has noticeably put on some girth since switching last fall from home-made meals to the ones served in school here in the District of Columbia. Her pediatrician wasn't at all surprised. Her kids gained 10 pounds, she said, when they started eating school meals. When my daughter heard that, she decided to switch back to taking her own food.

What's more, only 7 percent of school food operations fully comply with the nutrtional standards laid down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the federal meals program. During the week I spent recently in the kitchen at my daughter's school, it was clear that schools trying to feed kids on a budget rely heavily on industrially-processed convenience foods laced with additives and sugar. Fresh vegetables are a rarity.

A study of how schools use government donations of surplus farm commodities, conducted by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation (PFD) two years ago, found that California schools ordered far more meat and dairy products and rarely touched the offerings of fresh vegetables and whole grains. The reason is simple enough: kids don't like vegetables and whole grains. Unless, of course, they've already been trained to like them at home.

The University of Michigan researchers said they are encouraged by a recent movement toward exposing children to fresh, local produce and programs that encourage children to walk to school and exercise more -- just the sort of things being pushed by Michelle Obama in her "Let's Move" campaign, as well as "Healthy Schools" legislation pending here in the District of Columbia. The USDA also is considering new school food standards developed by the Institute of Medicine that would put a cap on the number of calories served in school meals, reduce starchy foods, and increase servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The University of Michigan study comes as Congress considers re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act, for which President Barack Obama has proposed splitting an additional $1 billion annually between school meals and other food programs. Some advocates say that amount is not even enough to put an apple on kids' cafeteria trays. Ann Cooper, the "renegade lunch lady," in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, says what schools really need is another $1 per day for each child in the federal program, which would work out to something like $5.4 billion a year.

But this latest study points to something even more ominous that should occupy the attention of federal lawmakers: a growing bifurcation of the food system wherein poor kids are routinely subjected to cheap processed food that damages their health, while kids from wealthier families get access to the best our local farms have to offer. That is the underlying message of the growing Farm to School movement: that all kids deserve fresh, wholesome food, not just the ones whose parents shop at Whole Foods or the farmers market.

More studies like this one will undoubtedly show that school food quality is a social justice issue that demands immediate attention. And while some politicians might be loathe to pay for improving it -- that is, if they think about it at all -- it is also a health issue with potentially devastating consequences for the national budget.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Kids Who Eat School Lunch Are Fatter

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Middle school children who regularly eat school lunches are more likely to be overweight or obese, develop poorer eating habits and have high levels of “bad” cholesterol compared to those who bring lunches from home, according to new study from the University of Michigan.

The study, which examined the eating habits of nearly 1,300 sixth-graders over a three-year period, found that those who at the lunch served at school ate more fat, drank more sugary beverages and consumed fewer fruits and vegetables.

The same students had higher levels of LDL (low-density lipoproteins), or "bad" cholesterol, compared to their peers who ate lunch prepared at home.

“This study confirms the current and escalating national concern with children’s health, and underscores the need to educate children about how to make healthy eating and lifestyle choices early on,” says Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of internal medicine at the U-M Health System. “Although this study doesn’t provide specific information on nutrient content of school lunches, it suggests there is a real opportunity to promote healthy behaviors and eating habits within the school environment. This is where kids spend a majority of their time.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

Kids have started lobbying the D.C. Council in favor of healthier meals.

Students involved in the Washington Youth Garden's Garden Science project have written letters in support of the Healthy Schools Act pending before the D.C. Council. See the report--with photos of the letters--on the WYG blog.

Hearings on the Healthy Schools Act are scheduled for March 26. You can testify. Just register by e-mail: ABenjamin@DCCOUNCIL.US.


Schools in Pittsburgh are teaching kids how to make healthful meals using a curriculum called "Food is Elementary." Teachers learn how to use the curriculum, which sometimes results in more fresh produce and whole grains being served in school cafeterias.


USA recently ran a series of articles questioning the safety of food served in school cafeterias. Many school kitchens are never inspected. Students are threatened with tainted meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has vowed to put tighter rules for school food in place.

*****, the online magazine, recently asked readers to make a healthy school lunch and send in photos. Here are the five winners.


Finally, a new study from Michigan State University finds that farm to school programs have a positive influence on school food service workers and help improve student meals in several ways.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Join Us

Parents for Better D.C. School Food arose out of the D.C. Farm to School Network. If you've been paying attention to these things, you may have noticed one group conspicuously missing from the school food debate in the District of Columbia: parents.

We think parents really care about the foods their children are consuming, especially when D.C. is listed as having the eighth highest rate of childhood overweight and obesity in the country. Yet as we've discovered, the food served in the city's public schools is some of the worst our nation's food system has to offer, high on industrially processed government commodity products, loaded with chemical additives and frequently injected with sugar. Truly, it is just cheap convenience food.

Our goal is to replace industrially processed convenience foods in our schools with fresh ingredients, preferably grown locally on farms right here in the Washington, D.C., area. To do that, we support the D.C. Farm to School Network, the Healthy Schools Act currently pending before the D.C. Council, as well as direct interaction with school food service officials.

There is strength in numbers. If you have not done so already, please join our Google group. In just the last couple of weeks, we have already drawn 30 members to the group. That is where we inform members about what we are doing, organize and plan strategy. You can also become a "fan" of our Facebook page. We already have 55 "fans" who can exchange comments and receive a link to the posts on our blog.

And do subscribe to our blog--Better D.C. School Food--either by e-mail or through a service such as Google Reader. In our blog, we examine local school food issues on a daily basis, show you pictures of the food being served in our schools and analyze school food for nutritional content.

You can also become a contributor to our blog. So far we've published 17 posts on topics ranging from the benefits of healthful fats and questions about serving Pop Tarts for school breakfast, to the food issues presented by two daughters in public school and strategies for getting young children to try different foods. We also share recipes: Peanut butter pancakes, anyone?

We urge you to become involved. Parents need to make their voices heard on the school food issue. No one has a bigger stake in this discussion. We urge you to visit your child's cafeteria, get to know the food service workers there, sit in on a meal and talk to the kids about eating healthful foods. You can change the way they eat for the better, and make a positive impression that will last them into adulthood.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kids Make Beet Salad

I teach something I call "food appreciation" classes to kids in the after-school program at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia. It's a great way to teach kids about healthful eating and foods (especially vegetables) they might not otherwise try. Each week I post the recipe the kids have made in class.

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Did we really have to go all the way to South Africa to make beet salad?

My food appreciation classes continue on their virtual world food tour and this extremely simple beet salad turned up in the African cookbook we are using as a reference. There's nothing especially African about it, but it is seasonal and when I thought about it, I realized in the four years I've been teaching these classes we have never used beets. It was high time we did.

I wasn't sure how much the kids would like beet salad. This is one of those vegetables people lover or hate. But I knew the kids would love handling the beets because of the red juice that looks very much like blood. Sure enough, the kids squealed with delight as soon as they saw the "blood" on their hands. Pretty soon, some of them had it all over themselves--their hands, their arms, their faces. Cutting the beets turned out to be some of the best fun we've had in ages.

I do have a little bone to pick with the way beets are sold these days, however. At most of the grocery stores I visit, they charge $3.99 for a bunch of three little beets with the greens attached. Normally, I love beet greens. But only when they are fresh out of the garden, not when they are days old. So I am not impressed by three little beets with tired greens attached--especially at $3.99. Where were all the big, bulk beets we used to see in the store?

It wasn't until I walked to my fourth store--a local organics shop--that I finally found what I was looking for: big, heavy, bulk beets with no greens. Never was I so glad to see a bin full of gnarly root vegetables.

To make this salad, cook 1 pound beets in a big pot of water. Beets take a rather long time to cook. Once the water has come to a boil, lower the heat so the water is just bubbling. Test the beets occasionally for doneness. I use a metal turkey trussing skewer. When the beets are done, the skewer will pass easily into the middle. Remove the beets from the water an allow to cool, preferably overnight.

My favorite part of using beets is peeling them after they've cooked. I just like the way the skins slip off. Then slice the beets into pieces and cut these into medium dice, or chop roughly, as you like, and place them in a mixing bowl. Add 1/2 red onion, cut into small dice, and stir in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, freshly ground pepper to taste.

The original recipe did not call for olive oil, but I thought the salad looked drab. In my world, as I explained to the kids, olive oil makes everything smile. And you can see immediately how the salad livens up--or "smiles"--when you stir in a little olive oil.

And that's all there is to making our beet salad. We served it in cups with spoons. I also like this salad with pieces of fresh tomato added and an herb such as mint, or perhaps anise hyssop.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

School Lunch: Frozen Juice

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

According to my daughter, the juice served at her school invariably is frozen. My visits to the cafeteria confirm that. The juice arrives at the school frozen, either in a carton like this or in plastic containers with foil seals, then is moved to a refrigerator to thaw, but never really gets an adequate chance to convert to its liquid form.

The kids, however, don't seem to mind at all. They make sport of it, turning the frozen juice into "slush."

Here you can see how my daughter has peeled the carton of orange juice open so she can dig into it with one of the plastic combination spoon/forks (sporks) that are always available in the cafeteria. After pounding away at the frozen mass, they eat it more like ice cream, then suck up any liquids with a straw.

According to the label, this 4-ounce carton of OJ contains 12 grams of sugar, or slightly less, ounce-for-ounce, than Coca-Cola. Many schools such as those in the District of Columbia have banned sugary soft drinks, but there's just as much sugar in "healthy" drinks such as juice and flavored milks.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Parents Better School Food Petition

Members of Parents for Better D.C. School Food have recently developed petition language that you can use to urge members of the D.C. Council to pass the "Healthy Schools Act." Feel free to copy this message and send it to your council member.

As parents/guardians of children enrolled in DC Public Schools, we strongly support the Healthy Schools Act and urge all council members to vote in favor of this important piece of legislation. We believe industrialized, highly-refined and processed foods have no place in our schools and that all children deserve fresh, healthy meals made from whole, preferably local, ingredients. We urge DCPS to teach our children healthful eating habits, eliminate "junk" food from our schools, encourage a resilient, sustainable local agriculture system, and provide detailed, accurate, and easily accessible menu information and ingredient lists for all school meals. We urge you to support measures that would:

1) Mandate that schools buy local whenever possible, and provide financial incentives for those that do;

2) Provide a central space for processing and storing healthy, local foods for school meals;

3) Require that schools disclose where and how foods they serve are grown as well as all ingredients in school meals; and

4) Require collaboration among government agencies and community partners to integrate hands-on farm to school education into the cafeteria and classroom (including a mandatory Farm to School Week each year).


(Your name)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

All Roads Lead to Berkeley

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Public Schools' new food service director, Jeff Mills, and Bacroft Elementary art and garden teacher Sarah Bernardi are flying off to Berkeley, California, tomorrow on a fact-finding mission for a pilot D.C. school gardening project that appears to moving ahead at light speed.

Mills and Bernardi will get a tour of Alice Waters' famed "Edible Schoolyard" and meet with staff at the Chez Panisse Foundation, where the garden proposal Bernardi has been so furiously assembling in recent weeks has been getting vetted by experienced school garden hands.

Mills and Bernardi will be joined by Lauren Biel, who, along with Bernardi, formed an organization called DC Greens to operate the Glover Park Farmers Market and raise funds for school gardens. (There's just so much going on with school gardens these days--and so quickly.)

We've yet to see details of the Bernardi/Biel pilot garden proposal, but Bernardi lately has been walking it all over town, trying to establish a consensus among school garden advocates. While in California, she'll also be meeting with the head of the San Francisco Green School alliance and touring school gardens there. Then it's back to D.C. to sell the garden proposal to school officials here and start looking for funds.

All of this started in January when Waters, who was in D.C. for a fundraising event, met with schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mills to offer help with school gardens. Subsequently, Bernardi, who is one of the Bancroft teachers working closely with Michelle Obama in the White House garden, wrote an impassioned essay about the need overburdened teachers have for help managing school gardens.

Mills picked Bernardi to solve the problem. (Careful what you wish for?)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Today's Lunch: Glycemic Bomb

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Cheap carbohydrates are the favorite foods of school districts across the country. What's wrong with carbs? Unlike protein and fat, carbohydrates turn into sugar (glucose) when you eat them, which signals the body to produce insulin. A powerful hormone, insulin is responsible for storing fat in the body and has also been implicated in an all-too-familiar complex of modern diseases: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis.

Teachers complain that kids are out of control after school meals. The high doses of sugar and other carbs could be an explanation. Kids get an initial jolt of energy from this type of meal, but typically the body overcompensates with insulin: After eating so many carbs, you will soon be feeling lethargic and hungry again.

Consider this meal served last week at my daughter's school. The entree is a highly-processed version of chicken nuggets, but you can't see the chicken under all the breading (carbs). Next to the chicken nuggets is a big blob of sugary barbecue sauce for dipping (pure carbs). The baked beans are all starch (carbs) swimming in a sugary sauce (more carbs). The macaroni and cheese is mostly refined pasta (carbs).

So far this meal is perfectly acceptable under the rules that govern the federally subsidized meal program. You've got protein in the chicken and a little bit of fat in the cheese, plenty of grain (no kidding) and the beans. Instead of a vegetable, we have fruit: a cup of diced peaches. Healthy, right? Well, maybe, if you don't count all the sugar in those peaches.

And as a beverage with this meal the kids were served orange juice rather than milk. I checked the ingredients on the carton. A 4-ounce serving contained 12 grams of sugar, about the equivalent of three teaspoons.

Truly, this meal is enough to send anyone's blood sugar through the roof.